When I was learning to drive, one of the first things my dad taught me to do was to let go of the wheel a little bit.
When you first get behind the wheel of a car the temptation is to wrap your fingers around the steering wheel and hold on tight. As you begin to drive, feeling the weight and momentum of the car around you, it is easy to feel out of control. You tense up, feet poised over the pedals, legs bent rigidly under the wheel. You brake too hard and turn too sharply. You do whatever you can to keep the car going straight.
But before long you realize that driving is not about holding the wheel steady and staying on course. Instead, it’s about constant adjustment. A million forces tug and pull at the car as you drive – road conditions, traffic, tire pressure, wind, rain, etc. You are always responding, always adjusting. Driving demands an incredible amount of attention and the ability to endlessly take in information, act and react. There is really no way to learn to do it well, except by just doing it.
Driving and parenting share this quality. At first, we are floored by the weight and responsibility of becoming a parent. Instead of thousands of pounds of rubber and steel, we hold in our arms a few slight pounds of flesh and bones. But the emotions can feel remarkably similar. We feel out of control, humbled by our child’s cries, their smiles, their strength and simultaneously their fragility.
Our instinct is to tense up, to worry, to read the “driver’s manuals,” and fret about a million things that are outside of our control. We try to apply rules and methods to everything, looking for solutions before we even fully understand the situation. We try to fix things, when in reality parenting is less about “fix” and more about “flux”.
So many situations in parenting are a matter of trial and error, of act and react, of patience and creativity. Like driving, parenting is about constant adjustment, about responding to the situation at hand, in the moment, with care and attentiveness.
Drivers who lose sight of this, who take driving for granted, cause accidents. Parents who lose sight of this cause meltdowns (for both the child and the parent). And we have all been there. For our son it’s usually about getting dressed, or putting his jacket and boots on before going outside. Almost without fail, he’ll protest any attempt to get his jacket on, stubbornly racing around the house or curling up in a little ball on the couch. One would think he had studied nonviolent resistance in the womb.
At our best we can think on our feet, take it all in stride and find some creative way to circumvent his protestations, making getting dressed fun (or at least less painful). We try one thing, adjust, try another, adjust and keep coming at him with different tacts. But when we get frustrated, and lose perspective, we lose the ability to cope and to be creative and usually we all end up grumpy and no closer to getting out the door.
It’s an odd paradox, that in driving, as in parenting, to gain control we have to let go a little bit. Like driving, there is really no way to teach this kind of coping and creativity, this ability to constantly adjust. You just have to live it. In time, we relax and settle into our new roles, opening ourselves up to all the unknowns that go along with parenting. We learn to read the situation, to trust our hearts, and let go of the wheel a little bit.
Right on, Josh. You can’t teach the coping skills necessary in driving or parenting. Like you said, you constantly adjust and just have to live it and I believe you should always trust your heart. You have such insight and you are the best father any child could wish for. Toby is blessed.
I once had a friend who was a doctor. I asked her what her brother did. She said, “Oh, he’s a doctor too.” To which I replied: “I want to meet your mother.”
I did, and she said something interesting to me: “American parents exhaust themselves trying to teach kids French before age six and then back off when they really need them as teens. We’re very permissive until around 13, and then our kids have a job, and that job is school.”